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Ukraine: Not just a country, an EU candidate country

Ukraine — the country that Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded claiming that it was not a real country — is now officially a candidate country for membership of the European Union. 

In a historic move toward the biggest expansion of EU membership in nearly two decades, the 27 heads of state and government on the European Council formally bestowed candidate status upon Ukraine, as well as upon neighboring Moldova, toward the end of the first day of a two-day summit in Brussels. 

“This is a historic moment, which allows us to define the contours of the European Union,” European Council President Charles Michel declared moments after the vote, at a news conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country now holds the rotating Council of the EU presidency. 

“This is a very defining moment and a very good day for Europe today,” von der Leyen said. 

“Well, everything has been said,” Macron began, before contributing an additional four minutes of praise and explanation of the decisions taken by the European Council. “We have during the last week moved forward with giant steps,” he said. 

But the excitement among EU heads over taking such a bold step was overshadowed by deep, seething anger voiced by some leaders of countries from the Western Balkans about the long delays that their membership bids have encountered. There was particular bitterness over Bulgaria’s longstanding obstruction of North Macedonia, which is eager to begin formal membership talks. Doing so requires the unanimous approval of all 27 capitals.

In its summit conclusions, the European Council sought to clarify the status of some of those applicants, including North Macedonia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Leaders wrangled over the text, particularly on Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was ultimately told it could receive candidate status if carries out reforms in 14 policy areas. 

But overall, the protracted and at times tortured discussions about the Western Balkans only underscored the long road and uncertain timeline faced by all EU applicants, and the difficult process that lies ahead of Ukraine and Moldova. 

The designation of candidate status for Ukraine, a country actively at war, occupied in many areas by Russian forces, and at grave risk of losing wide swaths of territory, represented a remarkable risk for the EU — itself a self-proclaimed peace project — and also a sharp rebuttal to the Kremlin’s effort to recreate the Soviet sphere of influence. 

The landmark decision immediately delivered a tremendous morale boost to Ukraine and to Moldova, and it was cheered widely in Kyiv and Chișinău, as well as across both countries. Immediately following the vote, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the European Council by video link and personally thanked each individual leader.  

His presentation was a very intentional echo of a powerful speech he had given in March, calling on each of them to help Ukraine, and calling out some of them for not doing enough. But on Thursday his remarks were of unvarnished gratitude, and some leaders who had come in for criticism back then received only heartfelt praise this time.

“Germany stands for us,” Zelenskyy said, addressing German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “Thank you, Olaf! Thank you for your support at a crucial moment.” 

Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had been subject to withering criticism for his coziness with Putin and for weeks obstructing the EU’s plans to sanction Russian oil, received only kindness. “Hungary stands for us,” Zelenskyy said. “Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, thank you, Viktor, together we are capable of much more than alone!” 

A screenshot of the Ukrainian president speaking to the EU leaders posted on his website showed him wearing a trademark olive green T-shirt with a yellow-and-blue flag patch on the left shoulder that said “Ukraine in the fight.” In the photo, Zelenskyy beams with happiness, his hands clasped together in a combined gesture of thanks and victory. 

Thursday’s proceedings opened with a meeting between EU heads and the Western Balkan leaders, but the conversation quickly turned acid, with the guests expressing fury at what they described as unjust, disrespectful stalling of their membership bids. 

“What is happening now is a serious problem and a serious blow to the credibility of the European Union,” North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski told reporters after the meeting.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama disparaged the entire enlargement process. “Bulgaria is a disgrace, but it’s not simply Bulgaria,” Rama said. “The reason is the crooked spirit of the enlargement — its totally crooked spirit.”

Balkan bitterness

The angry, emotional interventions prompted Michel to adjust the agenda of the European Council summit. Instead of moving immediately to a vote on candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova — which would have delivered a swift, positive outcome — Michel initiated a round-the-table discussion about the Western Balkans, including some tough debate over Bosnia and Herzegovina. His goal appeared to be to demonstrate genuine concern about the complaints raised during the morning session before giving Ukraine and Moldova cause to celebrate. 

But as the blabbing dragged through the late afternoon and into the evening, panic began to rise among some officials in Chișinău and Kyiv, who worried that some surprise obstacle had emerged and their applications would be blocked. Those fears, however, proved unfounded as leaders ended their conversation with the expected thumbs up. 

Scholz quickly tweeted: “27 times yes! Congratulations to #Ukraine and #Moldova: The European Council welcomes two new candidates for EU membership. Here’s to good cooperation in the European family!”

While Ukraine and Moldova celebrated, however, Georgia, was disappointed. The country in the South Caucasus, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, applied for membership at the same time as Ukraine and Moldova, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. But the European Commission said the country’s political dysfunction was too great to merit candidate status. Georgia instead received “European perspective” and, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, was urged to carry out reforms. 

“The candidate status for Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova is a milestone of European integration,” said Anton Hofreiter, the chair of the German Bundestag’s European affairs committee. “The decision in favor of candidate status is far from a victory over Putin, but it is a win for all of us,” he added.

Putin, in a speech in late February days before ordering the wide-scale invasion that failed to capture Kyiv, had sought to deny that Ukraine was a real country. “Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood,” he said. “There has never been a sustainable statehood in Ukraine.” 

Zelenskyy, speaking to the European Council by video link after Thursday’s vote, told the leaders they had achieved something remarkable. 

“Today you have adopted one of the most important decisions for Ukraine in all 30 years of independence of our state,” he said. “However, I believe this decision is not only for Ukraine. This is the biggest step towards strengthening Europe that could be taken right now, in our time and in such difficult conditions, when the Russian war is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity.

“On the fifth day of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, we applied to join the European Union,” Zelenskyy continued. “We provided extremely fast and high-quality answers to the questionnaire we received from the European Commission. And here is the desired result today. Today, I would like to reaffirm that Ukraine is capable of becoming a full-fledged member of the European Union.” 

Giorgio Leali and Camille Gijs contributed reporting.

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